(Charles Hugh Smith, OfTwoMinds.com) It makes perfect financial sense to crash the market and no sense to reward the retail options marks by pushing it higher.
An extraordinary opportunity to scoop up mega-millions in profits has arisen, and grabbing all this free money makes perfect financial sense. Now the question is: will those who have the means to grab the dough have the guts to do so?
Here’s the opportunity: retail punters have gone wild for call options, churning $2.6 trillion in mostly short-term calls–bets on gains now, not later. This expansion of retail options exposure is unprecedented not just in its volume but in its concentration in short-term bets (options that expire in a few days) and in mega-cap tech companies that are commanding rich premiums for options.
The options market is like every other market only more so. The price of an option–a bet that a stock, ETF or index will go up or down before the option expires–is sensitive to the volatility of the underlying equity, the demand of other punters for options and the premium being demanded for time: the farther out the expiration date, the higher the cost of the option.
Recall that anyone with 100 shares of the underlying equity can write/originate an option. Each option controls 100 shares, so a call option that is listed at $1 costs the buyer of the call $100.
This is very sweet leverage if the market goes your way. You get all the gains of the 100 shares for a cost considerably less than buying the 100 shares outright. No wonder retail punters are going crazy for this cheap leverage to maximize gains in “can’t lose” trades.
Options have one funny trait: they can expire worthless and the punter loses the entire bet. Each option has an expiration date and a strike price–the price of the underlying equity that’s the pivot point for the bet: calls gain value if the equity’s price moves above the strike price and puts gain value if the equity’s price falls below the strike price.
The entity that sold the option gets to keep the money if it expires without any value. If you have 100 shares of Engulf & Devour and you sell me a call for $500 at a strike price of $100, if Engulf & Devour closes below $100 at expiration, you keep the $500 as pure profit and I lose the entire bet.
It would be extraordinarily profitable to sell a huge number of calls–bets on a move higher– and then pull the rug out by crashing the market just as all those options expire. It would criminally foolish not to crash the market and scoop up all that free money.
Here’s what makes the opportunity so extraordinary: the options universe is extremely lopsided. Bearish bets have dried up as the market has melted higher month after month; short bets are at record lows and the put-call ratio reflects the same capitulation of Bears and Bulls’ supreme confidence in near-term gains.
This means a crash will cost very little in terms of puts gaining value because there are so few puts out there and reap enormous gains as the vast majority of call options will expire worthless, leaving those who wrote the calls immensely wealthier.
In previous eras with lower retail option volume and a less lopsided options market, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble to flash-crash the market to scoop up retail calls. But a trillion here and a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.
Buyers of “can’t lose” calls may be unaware that the tail can wag the dog. Mega-cap tech companies appear invulnerable to declines, but they are now the 800-pound gorillas in all the indices (Dow-30, S&P500, Nasdaq) and a boatload of ETFs. So triggering a mass sell-off in an index play such as SPY will trigger a sell-off in all the components of that index, including the invulnerable mega-cap tech names.